Online medical services grow in popularity amid COVID-19
By Zhang Shasha  ·  2023-02-06  ·   Source: NO.5-6 FEBRUARY 9, 2023
A worker at a Shanghai warehouse of the logistics arm of Sinopharm, China's largest pharmaceutical distributor, packs medicines ordered from online platforms on December 20, 2022 (XINHUA)

The number of online medical consultations has increased rapidly in China in recent days, as their usefulness during the new phase of COVID-19 management becomes increasingly apparent. According to a survey released by the National School of Development at Peking University in January, since the country revised its COVID-19 response in December 2022, approximately 55 percent of those with COVID-19 symptoms have made use of online medical services, while 17 percent chose to visit outpatient or emergency departments at hospitals.

"Services including online consultation, online prescription and medication delivery provide patients with an option to be treated at home, which has eased the pressure on hospitals, reduced crowds and lowered the risk of cross-infection," Jiao Yahui, head of the Bureau of Medical Administration under the National Health Commission, said at a press conference in December 2022.

As China's focus of COVID-19 response has shifted from infection prevention to medical treatment, authorities have been rolling out new policies and measures to facilitate greater access to medical treatment and medicines. These measures include promoting the development of new and existing online hospitals and medical institutions that offer online diagnosis and treatment services.

On December 12, the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism of the State Council, the body leading China's COVID-19 management efforts, issued an announcement, allowing hospitals to provide online prescriptions to new patients in addition to existing ones. Prior to the adjustment, hospitals could only provide the service to patients who had previously received prescriptions while visiting doctors in person.

Hunan Children's Hospital in Changsha, Hunan Province, opened an online platform on December 13 last year to provide COVID-19-related diagnosis, treatment and consultation services. Most of the inquiries are text-based, but video consultations are also offered if patients find it hard to describe their symptoms by text.

One local resident, surnamed Ma, used the system to talk to a doctor about her son, who had tested positive for COVID-19. "The online inquiry procedure was easy to handle and we didn't have to wait like when visiting overcrowded hospitals," Ma said. "We filled in our address after the doctor gave the prescription and medication arrived quickly. It was so convenient."


Currently online medical service providers in China fall into three categories: public hospitals, platforms such as AliHealth and JD Health, and local governments, according to an article published in China Health Insurance by Liu Liyun, an associate professor at Zhejiang Chinese Medical University.

Providers are working to overcome the challenges that currently face the industry, such as raising public awareness of and trust in their services, promoting interprovincial medical insurance reimbursement and integrating resources inside and outside hospitals. These challenges will persist even as COVID-19 fades from prominence.

Weimai is a company focusing on using online infrastructure to provide patients medical services throughout their whole treatment process. "Patients going to the hospital, requesting an appointment, seeing a doctor and obtaining a prescription is the traditional way medical services operate," Qiu Jialin, CEO of Weimai told Beijing Review. "But that does not represent the whole treatment process, which also includes disease prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and nursing."

He gave the example that a patient who had recovered from COVID-19 may need to undergo a chest x-ray, have a medical check-up, undertake multiple online consultations, buy medication and make an appointment for a return visit. Many people, especially those with mobility issues, require assistance in completing these procedures from a

professional healthcare manager. Weimai helps patients with all these steps. He said handing treatment-related administration for clients requires cooperation between hospitals and online service providers.

Another online medical service provider, WeDoctor, chose to cooperate with community clinics, which provide medical services to neighboring residents. Since 2020, the company, coordinating with 266 such institutions in Tianjin, began to build a cloud platform on which the participants can jointly procure pharmaceuticals to lower costs and on which prescriptions made by one of them can be accessed online by the others so patients can seek follow-up treatment at any member of the network at their convenience.

Such moves answer the call made by the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism of the State Council, encouraging community clinics, large hospitals and online medical service platforms to cooperate with each other in bolstering China's healthcare development.

A doctor checks the symptoms of a patient during an online consultation at Tianjin Medical University General Hospital on December 14, 2022 (XINHUA)

Post-pandemic prospects

On December 15, 2022, the National Development and Reform Commission released a guideline on expanding domestic demand. It underlined the construction of online medical infrastructure and reforms to increase public access to online medical services.

With policy support and growing demand, online healthcare is gaining ground. According to iResearch, a data analysis platform, China's online healthcare service market is estimated to reach 87.6 billion yuan ($12.97 billion) in 2023, up 25.1 percent year on year.

Cheng Yi, Senior Vice President of WeDoctor, said at a healthcare forum on January 12 that the number of online medical service users will continue to expand and digital solutions for medical care will become more diversified. "The medical service system should shift from being disease-cure-centered to health-management-centered," Cheng said.

"New medical services must put patients first," Qiu said. "Where there are needs, there should be services."

Qiu said previously people got taxis on the streets, representing the first phase of development in which people seek and wait for services. In the second phase, after the emergence of ride-hailing apps, cars began waiting at office buildings for their passengers to come out, representing services waiting for people. Nowadays, if you take taxis to the airport for three consecutive days, then on the fourth day, the app will recommend to you cars that are heading for the airport before you even enter your destination, representing the third phase—services seeking people.

"China's healthcare industry is still in the phase in which people wait for services," Qiu said, "There is still a lot of room for us to explore new business models, which is where our opportunities lie." 

(Print Edition Title: The Internet of Healthcare)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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